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Wanted: government documents context in the Wikileaks narratives

Last week, the University of Washington’s Master of Communication in Digital Media program hosted a public forum at Seattle Public Library to discuss the swarm of stories surrounding Wikileaks. “Open Secrets: An Open Conversation about Wikileaks and Information Transparency in America” featured a panel of local “thought leaders”: Mike Fancher, Retired Executive Editor of The Seattle Times; Brett Horvath, Director of The Leaders Network; and Sarah van Gelder, Editor-in-Chief, Yes! Magazine, a progressive magazine.

The discussion exemplified the difficulty, perhaps impossibility, of getting a handle on so many fractured and simultaneous dimensions at the moment they’re occurring, as if trying to gather one’s most precious possessions from the air in the middle of a tornado. But to the credit of the moderator, panelists, and audience, the discussion was civil and wide-ranging, creating a public forum for whatever sense-making is possible at this stage.

Even in a story that’s evolving moment by moment, with a steady din of conjecture and partial information, the troops are already lining up behind their chosen heroes and challenging designated villians. Friday’s discussion was no exception. The general consensus seemed to be that Julian Assange, a clever though flawed hero, has done democracy a service by tossing raw classified information into the winds. A few participants in the audience raised questions about how people who work in government (the government is comprised of people, after all) are to conduct themselves in earnest, without the expectation that each datum will be publicly available, suggesting that indeed there may be some role for classification under certain circumstances. Their questions found little traction or response. My own conjecture is that their comments met a general climate of suspicion, an assumption that government is insidiously secretive by default.

But there’s another reason for this quick leap to the comfortable pro-con approach to this complex story. Many discussions in the media have been strikingly deficient in providing background on government documents and what roles they fill in the work of agencies and actors. What documents does the State Department produce, and for what purpose? Why are some of them classified? What IS classification? Are there different levels of classification? Under what circumstances can documents be declassified? What is the current state of government transparency overall, and how has this changed from the last to the current administration?

That’s where you all come in, Free Government Information community. If government information stymies even librarians, then what else could WE be doing to make it accessible to the general public, beyond putting raw documents at easy reach? What else could we communicate about the information life cycle of government documents that could flesh out our analysis of the current state of government transparency and secrecy more accurately? I’m not suggesting that this would make the questions or answers any less challenging, nor do I suggest that we become apologists for government abuses of transparency. But while these stories are in heavy circulation, we have an opportunity to insert our expertise to bring grounding to many narratives that are now lacking that crucial context.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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